Volume:3, Issue: 2

Dec. 1, 2011

Distance Learning: An Important Direction for Institutions of Higher Education
Butova V.N. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: distance learning, multi-media technology,  components of information technology,  distance education quality, new forms of teacher-student communication, development of on-line instructional materials.
SYNOPSIS: The Regional Institute for Finance and Economics of Kursk, Russia, has developed a unique system of distance learning that incorporates traditional forms of higher education with the latest achievements in information technology. V.N. Butova describes major aspects of the program, analyzes strengths and weaknesses, and provides ideas for future development.

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 Multi-media Technology is a Necessity for Education

 The 21st century can be characterized by its very particular form of development as the “information technology century.” This is especially true in the field of education. New information technology in education, connecting with the broader penetration of computer and telecommunications equipment in all spheres of human activities, has generated new problems throughout the system of higher education. At first, computers used in higher education seemed more like tools for conducting scientific research in the natural sciences and were themselves more like subjects of study until the technological breakthrough that saw the creation of the personal computer at the beginning of the 1980s. The development of the “PC” led to a more qualitative interpretation of information technology. Along with the continuous expansion of personal computers in the world, the computer began to be utilized in support of the instruction process. The personal computer together with the global information network (the Internet) practically erased borders between nations through its unending supply of free information. The educational establishment was renewed by this global information source through an influx of new, instructional knowledge.

Along with multi-media technologies and enormous information resources has come the need for new educational systems built on new models and methods.

The Russian Federation’s concept for the use of information technology in higher education, includes the fundamental and strategic goals of: the in-depth improvement of intellectual activity utilizing the latest information technology; a radical increase in the effectiveness and quality of the preparation of specialists up to standards reached in the developed countries of the world; and the preparation of teaching cadres in a new way of thinking. Business education in particular needs to develop in its students: skills in global virtual commands; the ability to quickly orient oneself in the information field; skills for effective communication utilized by contemporary technology; the ability for self-instruction; the ability to work effectively under pressure; and to complete projects punctually. The set of competencies which a student ought to possess by the time of graduation from a Russian economic institute of higher learning ought to include: continually revitalized knowledge and skills; an increase of social activity and professional mobility; the talent for quickly and effectively making decisions in situations of uncertainty and information overflow.

The goal of this article is to examine and analyze the information education process as conducted at the Regional Institute of Finance and Economics (RIFE) located in the city of Kursk, Russia.

RIFE’s Program

In 1997 RIFE began implementation of a program to revitalize itself as an institution of higher learning through an upgrade of its information technology program. Below is a list of the separate aspects, which we will examine:

The following components of information technology education were selected to be established at RIFE:

  • An ITategy;
  • An electronic portal;
  • A convergent, heterogeneous information environment in the institution;
  • An electronic library;
  • A system for providing distance learning opportunities;
  • A system for electronic document sharing;
  • A management system for finance and accounting;
  • A management system for human resources;
  • An analytical management system for the various activities of the institution.

Let me briefly clarify some of the terms used above: under the term, ITategy, we mean the utilization of information and communication technology in all areas and activities of the institution. In other words, we aim to create a unified, information-education atmosphere in the institution. The use of information and communication technology allows us on the one hand to provide for an intensification of instruction and an increase of quality. On the other hand, it enables us to achieve individual and differentiated instruction.

As applied to the Regional Institute of Finance and Economics, the utilization of information and communication technology during the instructional process is quite complex and encompasses several aspects:

  • A technological connection with the organizational characteristics of the functioning instructional process;
  • A previously defined list of technical demands on the resources of the information and communication system;
  • A didactic and purposeful alteration of the content of instruction;
  • A schedule of previously defined, systematic forms and methods of instruction.

The solutions to these complex problems would entail the creation of an information-oriented educational atmosphere at the Regional Institute for Finance and Economics in Kursk, one that would need to be constructed as a unique IT system.

At the present time, RIFE’s IT system is an intricately engineered complexity in which can be singled out several purposeful and successful developments. First of all, this department is a junction for access to: the Internet; all actions connected with the organization of the current system of telecommunications; the environmental engineering system of the institute of higher education; a portal service; and also the departments currently working on computer hardware decisions which under close inspection can be seen to be making progress by earmarking their utilization of the system on a hierarchical scale.

The Administrative Portal of RIFE

 The portal is the highest “information” component in the educational environment of the Regional Institute for Finance and Economics. It is a powerful cross-platform application which manages the delicate mechanism that operates the entire educational system of this institution of higher learning. “Portal RIFE” is an engineering platform, which runs, completely on its own, all aspects of the interactions of students, all forms of instruction, the teachers, the administration, and all employees of the institute.

The portal provides for: management of the learning process; instantaneous data access in the instructional process; ability learning through on-line courses; and the hiring out of intermediate level bookkeeping; the transfer of financial information concerning the institute; access to information through a postal delivery service; employment reports; an electronic library; access to the virtual classroom system; forums; and many other activities.

The administrative portal of RIFE consists of: a system for the collection of information; a system for the accumulation, formalization, and display of new information or similar content like new-student data, instructional functions, or even specialized applications; and a system for accessing previously accumulated or newly created instructional data.

Educational Technology in Use at RIFE

RIFE is involved at present in both in-school and correspondence course forms of instruction. In describing the in-school forms of instruction utilized at the institute, it is important to note that “IT” which is the leading technology of the organization’s instructional process was begun with a total overhaul of what was once considered to be the student’s “work space.” An electronic card or “flash drive” now allows a student “to carry his/her ‘virtual desk’ into the lecture halls of the institute” without actually being confined to that physical work place. The “virtual desk” was introduced to RIFE in 2004 thanks to Sun Microsystems.

This innovative approach continues to be utilized throughout the instructional process at RIFE as well as during ensuing stages of a student’s theoretical preparation. The core of this approach consists in students studying on their own without the necessity of attending traditional lectures. All instructional material and complex study methods for the course are developed by the professorial and lecture staff of RIFE and can be found on the portal. The student occupies himself with the study information and course assignments of the particular subject area according to a timetable established through consultation and coordination with the course lecturer. This is a sound use of the educational technology and thanks to the technology itself, saves a lot of valuable time of both students and instructors.

Students in our program take part in seminars and use new technologies in practical experiences like creating and presenting original software products. Towards the end of the first year of study at RIFE, our expectations are such that a student ought to possess practical skill competence to the degree that he/she has created a minimum of ten software products. We have changed the ideology behind our education system’s in-school form of instruction for students who are pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Independent computer activities and technology-practice tasks have been inculcated into all disciplines and sections by the various lecturers. Such tasks allow for shorter project time frames that are essential to the improvement of baccalaureate candidate preparation quality and are conducive to the formation of professional competency. Students are no longer limited to posted lecturer consultation schedules but now e-mail their questions to their lecturer’s blog anytime of day or night. The lecturer, too, is freed from an inflexible consultation schedule and can respond to students at his/her convenience.

Utilizing educational technologies, RIFE introduces its instructional process to students over a six-year period which we call, “The Realm of the Mentor.”

Students attending our in-school form of instruction divide up after the first year into project groups which have at their heads, not only lecturers or project managers, but also senior students from the upper level courses. This is done in an attempt to secure the best possible results from the project activities. This approach provides opportunities for the practical application of information technology in the achievement of project tasks. Work groups themselves are conducive to the development of teamwork and quite a few other professional competencies which, in our day, are most valued by a graduate’s potential employer.

The evaluation of the student’s learning progress and tech competencies is performed through the portal. Student tests and examinations are developed by their lecturers with a view toward the potential occupations. As a result, tests take various forms: multiple-choice questions; single, correct answers; sequential answer type questions; specific job or task questions with several solution possibilities. It should be noted here that students, post-graduate students, and lecturers of the institute have provided invaluable assistance in filling the portal with large quantities of valuable instructional and informational material.

“Coaching” is our term for the art of problem solving. This educational technology forms one of the first steps that a student takes at the institute. It provides invaluable support to student’s confidence during the long and difficult pursuit of progress.

Distance Learning at RIFE

The growth and popularity of distance learning is closely associated with the development of the Internet. However, a close look at the history of the development of distance learning indicates that it began long before the appearance of the Internet.

From the Bible it is well known that Christ gathered his disciples and taught them the faith. He wanted them to spread it all over the world. The apostles eventually recorded the words of Christ. These writings were handed down through clergymen and the words of Christ are read and spoken in parish churches to this day. This is a perfect example of distance learning in ancient times.

Today distance learning has a very special significance for Russia with its enormous geographical space. As research reveals, the system of distance learning developed in Russia in two distinct stages. The first took place around the end of the 1980s when students across the Soviet Union’s vast expanse utilized a “correspondence course” form of learning. They received study material in segments by means of the national postal service. Eventually, they would come to an institute in order to take exams, pass them, and move on to the next step. Second stage development of distance learning in Russia dates from the early 1990s and is connected with the general acceptance in 1995 of “The concept of the creation and development of a system for distance learning in Russia.” This stage is known as the “Age of the World Wide Web.”

As we have already pointed out earlier, RIFE got down to the business of putting distance learning into practice in 1997.

At the institute, distance learning supports our internal or on-site classes, external or correspondence courses, our internal/external combination as well as the other ways in which our students may fulfill their academic requirements. When implemented, these various forms of instruction utilize both traditional and unique methods, resources, and forms of instruction that are based on contemporary computer and telecommunications technology.

One of the peculiarities of distance learning is that this form of the educational process consists of a purposeful and controlled utilization of independent, instructional work.  Our students can now study in a comfortable place, at a convenient time, in a “personal learning environment” of their choosing with a unique opportunity for individualized attention through communication with their professor or lecturer by means of phone, fax, e-mail, blog, some other online format, or through what is now referred to as “snail mail.”

What kind of students make up our student body? An investigation into the consumer demographics of our distance learning system indicates that this population contains the following groups:

  • Individuals living in rural areas and regions at quite a distance from RIFE;
  • Specialists already having an education but wishing to improve their qualifications or receive a second or alternative qualification in a different field;
  • Individuals who cannot receive educational services in a traditional system due to the impossibility of combining studies with work;
  • Individuals going through a period of service in the armed forces of the Russian Federation and also retired or reserve officers and members of their families;
  • Hospitalized individuals having medical limitations that may preclude a traditional education;
  • Inmates of prisons, their guards, and other service personnel who are unable to attend a traditional educational institution;
  • Citizens of foreign nations who wish to receive a Russian education, but for various reasons cannot come to Russia for studies;
  • Consumers of educational services who are striving to receive supplemental education, second or parallel education, but wish to proceed through a certified educational program in a compressed period of time;
  • Various categories of specialists who are striving for further training, retraining, or improvement of their qualifications;
  • Individuals wishing to pull together and complete a specialized educational program consisting of courses given by a variety of educational establishments including some from other countries;
  • The unemployed registered in the centralized federal or municipal employment agencies.

Using the analysis data described above, RIFE’s experience with distance learning, along with national as well as foreign theory and practice in the field, we can identify some of its characteristics. Distance learning can be:

  • Flexible. Those seeking an education are able to do so at a time, place, and at a tempo suitable to their individual needs.
  • Modular. The fundamental distance learning program is built on a modular principle that enables the student to choose independent courses and so build a personalized study plan in order to meet individual or group needs.
  • Parallel. Instruction may be conducted while combining foundational and professional activities during training.
  • Wide-ranging. The distance from the student’s location to the educational institution does not appear to be an obstacle to the effectiveness of the educational process.
  • Synchronization. The student and the subject being studied can be brought together by schedule that is convenient to the student.
  • Volume. The number of students participating in a particular course does not seem to be a critical factor in a distance-learning program. Courses are no longer “closed out due to numbers.”
  • Qualification. Demands on students and teachers essentially excel those of traditional classes.
  • New information technology. Distance learning utilizes all kinds of contemporary information and telecommunication technologies inherently providing the student with valuable experience regardless of the subject matter.
  • Social equality. Distance learning removes social tension and guarantees students an equal opportunity to receive a quality education independent from one’s place of residence, social standing, professional activities, the condition of one’s health, or material circumstances.
  •  International. Distance learning guarantees suitable opportunities for the export and/or import of educational services.

The characteristics listed above define some of the advantages of distance learning over other forms of receiving an education while simultaneously displaying some of the specific demands on both the lecturers and their students that, in some cases, have intensified the value of the learning process.

Many of these characteristics are conducive to the future market growth of distance education. On the world stage, the development of distance technologies has been defined by the USA which currently holds more than 50% of global market share compared to Russia’s 2%. In spite of such a small share at present, Russia is continuing on its path to the creation and introduction of educational distance technology in all its regions.

At the present time, institutions of higher education where distance learning is being implemented, are finding that potential students are carefully thinking through the various paths for earning a degree that are available to them. Their criteria have changed from former times. The name of the institution is no longer more important than the quality of the study material, the suitability of the educational interface, the speed of access to new knowledge, along with many other factors.

The Problem of Distance Education Quality

One of the main problems with distance learning is that the professorial-lecturer personnel are in the experimentation process. They did not receive formal training for distance education during their preparatory years. They are filling the role of pioneers in a field that is under development. At the present time there is not enough information available to permit us to speak with certitude about the quality of the IT preparation of the staff, nor can we connect this with their personal, skill levels.

For now the institute is working to rectify quality concerns regarding the orientation of distance learning to practical problems connected, in the first place, with the implementation of computer applications in the preparation of each learning discipline’s material. The establishment of a computer practicum involving activities emphasizing the practical application of theory will be able to present students with concrete learning material through his/her chosen structure of preparation. The student will then complete the computer practicum according to the particular discipline’s compulsory conditions in a monitored, computer practicum. Testing will be carried out through a system of handwritten and electronic tests controlled by the institute’s distance learning system. Independent work-tasks in all instructional disciplines will be elaborated on through distance learning as we have already described regarding the educational technology exams in the in-school forms of instruction.

Because distance learning at RIFE is an ideological direction, we believe that a complete profile of student preparation employing study tasks and work projects can only come about if we search energetically and efficiently for opportunities to provide students with thorough communication with lecturers through distance learning applications like blogs.

The daily operation of distance learning at RIFE entered a new, piloting phase when we began “webinars” (from the English words for “web” and “seminar,”) for online consultations, project discussions, and thesis defense opportunities. While we follow and examine the quality of these new forms of instruction, we will be on the lookout for any and all positive dynamics that they bring to our distance learning offerings.

Developing and perfecting our system of distance learning at RIFE is grounded on the implementation of active cooperation between students and their professors and lecturers regarding interactive information resources available through the portal. This can be seen through out such characteristic, learning process components as: goals, content, methods, organizational forms, and learning environment. The creation of an informational environment which employs contemporary computer and communication technologies enabled the institute to implement an immediate and remarkable reversal of the relationship between our learners and the learning facilities. The computer visualization of study material; archived storage of great volumes of information; its transmission and processing; the automation of the processes of computing, info-search activities, processing the results of learning experiments and other activities are only a few criteria at which distance learning excels over other forms of instruction at RIFE.

We consider the creation and development by RIFE students of personal, electronic portfolios which permit an evaluation not only of the student’s successes but also of his/her real achievements towards the formation of professional competencies to be an extremely valuable use of learning process information. At the present time, utilizing the portal, electronic portfolios are being created for students enrolled in every form of instruction at the institute.

The Prospects for Future Development of Distance Education at RIFE

If one may speak from the perspective of the development of distance education at the institute, it is hoped that these will continue to remain connected: in the first place, with on-going technology directions; with an increased communications channel capacity; with the most up to date utilization of communication resources disseminating instructional products; and with principal cross-platforms and unification standards.

We predict that the next steps in the development of distance education at the institute will be an increase in the quality of the instructional materials and methodologies employed in this young process, such as: the development of interactive courses; online instructional games that model real-life industrial processes; and the employment of resources that would enable interaction with students by means of mobile phone platforms.

 The formal training of lecturers, skilled at carrying out educational activity over great distances, will be a major step towards improving distance learning and instruction. To facilitate this goal, the institute is trying to cultivate a corps of teaching cadre from among our graduates who have passed through this unique system of instruction with its broad utilization of information and communication technologies. Having “survived” the experience, they will be the ones best suited to develop distance education for future generations of students.

Distance learning demands the presence of a full line of auxiliary and technical support services in any institute of higher education. We have already mentioned that we created an information center and a department of information and telecommunication technology at RIFE. At present, it is not yet ready to manage our supply of problems. However, it suffices for the moment as we create a structural subdivision that specializes in developing our system of electronic instruction and our network.

When all is said and done, we can conclude that RIFE is on the right track. There is a future for distance learning and all its forms in the field of education.

Sources:

  • Lemekh, P.M., “The Activity of Specialists in the Field of Distance Learning,” Academic Transactions of Institute of Informatization of Education, Russian Academy of Education, 2005, Extract 17, pp. 60-65.
  • Smurov, H., VP Group (Electronic resource) “Contemporary Developmental Trends in the World of Distance Education,” URL: http://www.verticalportals.ru (Reference date: Mar. 24, 2010.)
  • Robert, I.V., Manushin, E. A., Martirosian, L.P., and others, “The Development of Distance Learning for Extended and Supplemental Education in Institutions of Higher Learning,” Moscow, 2004, Institute of Informatization of Education, Russian Academy of Education, p295.
  • Chukhlomin, V.D., “The Use of New Information Technology in Business Education as Modeled at the State University of New York (SUNY,)” Distance and Virtual Instruction, 2009, No. 2.

 

 

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